Research indicates that only one-forth of intimate partner assaults are reported to the police (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000). Seeking to expand opportunities for survivors and increase accountability for offenders, some activists and scholars have been investigating restorative justice. 'Restorative justice' is the name for a range of informal methods for addressing crime based on dialogue involving victims, offenders, and their communities. Repairing harm, rather than punishment, is the central goal of these practices. Restorative justice can be used at many points in the criminal legal process. It can be used to prevent cases from being prosecuted; as a part of formal sentencing for a conviction; during time in prison or jail; or after release from incarceration. Restorative justice is increasingly used to address crime in schools. These informal methods are also used to address conflicts between communities in the aftermath of war.
Like many feminist activists, restorative justice practitioners criticize the existing legal system for failing to meet the needs of victims, and for failing to hold offenders accountable. Like feminist antiviolence activists, restorative justice practitioners are working to address the impact of crime on communities, something the legal system is not designed to do.
Most commonly used in cases of youth crime, restorative justice has become popular since the 1990s in many countries around the world. Do these methods offer ideas that are appropriate to intimate partner violence?
Among feminist antiviolence activists and scholars, there are many different perspectives on this issue. There is skepticism about whether the informal methods of restorative justice are truly victim-centered, as many of its proponents claim. Some argue that since restorative practices were not developed specifically for intimate partner violence, they will pose dangers to survivors. Some are concerned that informal dialogue between victims, offenders, and their communities will not be enough to hold offenders accountable. On the other hand, there are antiviolence activists and scholars who believe restorative justice offers better ways to meet victims' needs and achieve safety and accountability than the existing legal system.
While restorative justice for youth crimes has been extensively studied, there is remarkably little research on restorative approaches to intimate partner violence. The most promising work in this area has been done by Joan Pennell (2005, 2006). Pennell designed a model in Canada for addressing child abuse and intimate partner violence that combines restorative practices with a feminist coordinated community response. Evaluation research on this model showed that it significantly reduced both intimate partner violence and child abuse (Pennell & Burford, 1994, 2000). Pennell has also developed a new project in North Carolina, with input from the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence as well as women's shelters, batterers' counselors, child welfare workers, the courts, and the police. These feminist-restorative hybrid projects meet many of the criticisms that have been raised concerning safety issues and offender accountability. By designing new interventions with the involvement of battered women's advocates and child protection workers, the needs of survivors are placed at the center of these practices, and safety is prioritized.
Those in search of new ways for survivors to find justice would do well to examine Pennell's work. There are also feminist-restorative approaches that have been developed for sexual assault (Koss & Achilles, 2008) and for adult survivors of child sexual abuse (Jülich, 2006).
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